SXSW Review: BORN TO FLY, WETLANDS Reveal Fun Things to Do With Our Bodies

John Gholson on two very different films.

Late in the documentary Born to Fly, "pop action" choreographer Elizabeth Streb mentions wanting to expand the brand name recognition of her dance company. This film should certainly help. I'd never heard of Streb before this (not that I keep an eye on what's happening in the avant-garde dance scene), and now I can't stop thinking of Streb's troupe. Streb dancers are perfect specimen daredevils, hurling themselves through glass, dodging spinning I-beams, and performing aerial ballet on the suspension wires of sky-high Ferris wheels for their art. In a world where Stomp, Blue Man Group, and Cirque du Soleil can sell out venues worldwide, you can see the commercial potential in Streb's work as well as she does.

"Pop action" is the term Streb applies to her dancers' abilities to land on any part of their body as it fits the piece. This kind of extreme physicality for entertainment's sake is rarely seen outside of the world of pro wrestling. The dancers, all skilled gymnasts and from the impression given here, all interesting people in their own right, fling their bodies hard against unforgiving mats from impossible, spinning heights. There's an artful precision to it, but ouch. It's a career path that requires a disregard for your own personal pain threshold if you're going to make it at all. Streb's own feet look like ginger roots with toenails. One dancer accidentally scalps herself while flailing in a coffin-sized box suspended 20 feet in the air. This stuff takes a level of fortitude that many of us don't have.

Born to Fly skillfully showcases Streb's art, but also gives us some real insight into who she is and how she approaches movement with a nearly scientific fascination concerning spatial relationships between human bodies and the air around them. Director Catherine Gund's film reveals Streb to be a compulsive and compassionate creator, surprisingly free of the kind of pretense you might expect from someone inventing new ways to dance. She's not asking anyone to do anything she wouldn't do (or hasn't done) herself, and that inspires a kind of devotion that means that even when things go horribly wrong (as it does in the case of one former Streb dancer), the art still takes priority over the limits of the human body.

It's extreme and it's crazy and absolutely beautiful to watch. Gund has a great eye for this type of quick portrait, balancing all of the elements that are part of Streb's story (her life, her company, the performances themselves) into a whole that is really exemplary documentary filmmaking. You find yourself invested and in the finale, when Streb walks down the glass dome of London's City Hall herself, it's as suspenseful as most narrative thrillers. In 82 too-quick minutes, I went from completely ignorant of Streb and her "action heroes" (the name she applies to her dancers) to becoming a big fan. Born to Fly is a must.

I had seen director David Wdendt's Wetlands the night before (you can read Devin's review here), and didn't expect to link the two films together in one piece, but the more I thought about it, the more at home the antics of Wetlands fit in with Streb's dedication to pushing the human body to get the results you want. Here, teen skater Helen Memel (Carla Juri) keeps purposefully wrecking her own anus to stay in a hospital and get the attention she's always wanted.

Post-Sundance, Wetlands is already building a reputation as a provocative gross-out. It's not as grim as Trainspotting, but it's in the same ballpark (replacing heroin with ejaculate), so if you can handle Boyle's movie, you can probably handle this one. I found the scene where Alex Milburg, as Helen's father, douses an avocado in mayonnaise to be the most stomach-churning  thing on display (probably because it was real, when every other squirt in the film is simulated movie magic).

This movie might not have worked at all without the performance of Juri who is just a magnetic, impish powerhouse of an actress. Helen's obsessions give her more joyful curiosity than guilt, and Juri wears every one of Helen's feelings so clearly on her own face that it fights against and transcends the film's more melodramatic leanings. This really is a "best of the year" performance from an actor, no matter how much butt-scratching and pizza-jizzing takes place in Wetlands.

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